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When Meryl Zausner was 25 and working at Colgate Palmolive, she had the kind of moment so many women in business have. She was attending a planning meeting for a laundry detergent product-the only woman in the room-when a thought occurred to her. "I asked, 'Excuse me, have any of you ever done a load of laundry?'" Zausner recalls. "It turned out that not one of them had, and yet here they were, deciding on the global strategy for how women are going to do laundry."
When Meryl Zausner was 25 and working at Colgate Palmolive, she had the kind of moment so many women in business have. She was attending a planning meeting for a laundry detergent product—the only woman in the room—when a thought occurred to her. "I asked, 'Excuse me, have any of you ever done a load of laundry?'" Zausner recalls. "It turned out that not one of them had, and yet here they were, deciding on the global strategy for how women are going to do laundry."
It's the sort of corporate blindness that cuts both ways: Not only did these men lack experience of their own product and how it fit into customers' lives, but they also lacked understanding of their colleagues. Women were pouring into the workforce, but the companies that hired them knew as much about the lives and needs of working women as they did about, well, sorting lights and darks and getting out stains.
HBA Woman of the Year
These days, Zausner is chief financial officer of Novartis Oncology, where she has been a key player in advancing the company's ambitious cancer strategy. No one would accuse her of the kind of narrowness of vision her colleagues at Colgate Palmolive suffered from. Zausner has lived a life deeply marked by love and loss, and her colleagues see its impact in everything she does, from the passion she brings to the development of new cancer drugs to her commitment to creating a better deal for female and minority co-workers.
The ability to maintain a healthy connection between the professional and the personal is a challenge for most of us. But when you talk to Meryl Zausner's colleagues, it's clear that she's succeeded in the challenge in a way that they find not just notable, but inspirational. A mark of the esteem that she's held in is that she has been elected the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association's Woman of the Year—an honor that's gone over the years to leaders in the industry like Genentech's president of product development Susan Desmond-Hellmann and Johnson & Johnson's Vice Chairman Christine Poon.
Part of the reason for her election has to do with the birth and growth of the Novartis Oncology global unit—which has grown from $1.5 billion to nearly $6 billion in six years. But that's far from Zausner's whole story. She also provides a role model for how to succeed in the modern-day pharmaceutical industry, and inspires women facing the day-to-day challenges of being a full-time employee and mother.
A Letter to mY Younger Self
Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Zausner lived with her mother, a full-time bookkeeper, in a rent-controlled apartment on Ocean Avenue in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn. Money was tight, and when it was time for college, she explains, "My typical Jewish mother said, 'You have to make sure you can get a job when you get out of college. Become an accountant.'" Zausner, who inherited the family gift for numbers, agreed. "It was something I knew I could get a good job at," she says. She majored in accounting at the University of Albany and spent summers answering phones at a New York recruiting firm to help pay her way.
She began her career at the public accounting firm David Berdon & Co. at a time when women accountants were relatiively rare. "I didn't mind the hours, which were intense," says Zausner. "During tax season we worked seven days a week for three months straight. But when you're 22, you have the energy. You can go out on Saturday night, go home, take a shower, and go back to work."
But Zausner didn't want to go on like that forever. She wanted to see the world. So after she got her CPA in 1981, she called her old boss from those summers at the recruiting firm, who placed her at Colgate Palmolive as an internal auditor.
Past HBA Woman of the Year Recipients
It was an eye-opening experience. "I was in South Africa at the height of apartheid," says Zausner. "I was in Colombia. I got picked up at the airport by armed guards. They were kidnapping American executives all over the place. They said, 'You could fit in. You look Hispanic. Just don't let them hear you speak.'"
Conversations over laundry detergent aside, Colgate was a good place for women to grow. "[CEO] Ruben Mark was a proponent of diversity and inclusion before the words were ever spoken out of anyone's mouth," says Zausner. She recalls him announcing that if a qualified man and a qualified woman applied for a job, the woman was to get it. "This was in the 1980s, and there was an uproar in the organization. But within 15 months, it wasn't an issue anymore."
In 1986, as part of a wider move, the company formed a small venture company to reinvent mature products—like turning HandiWipes into claw-proof cat-box liner. Zausner was controller. "We had our own little portfolio," she says. "We went out and set up our own brokerage network and our own warehousing system. It was so much fun."
One employee told Meryl she was uncomfortable being the only one to wear a sari to a company gala. So Meryl donned one-and others followed, from left: Meryl Zausner, Michele Galen (communications), Carrie Kifner (HR). human resources, Gerber, a Novartis company).
The fun ended in 1987, when Colgate acquired Softsoap and other brands from Minnetonka, and restructured Meryl's co-workers right out of jobs. "It was a horrible period," remembers Zausner.
The recruiter friend came through again with a position at the over-the-counter business of Sandoz. "The company was so different then," says Zausner. "The pharma business and the consumer products businesses were completely integrated. They didn't even have separate financial statements."
Zausner grew with the company. By 1996, when Sandoz merged with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis, she was responsible for pharma and OTC business unit support and oversaw budgets of $1.8 billion.
Zausner's next career move was in an unexpected direction. The US oncology group at Novartis had been lobbying to create a global business unit, looking for a management structure that was intimately familiar with the emerging science of targeted therapies, and where oncology projects wouldn't get lost in the list of top priorities.
Past HBA Woman of the Year Recipients
Certainly, Novartis was entering into an unprecedented period of product launches. Looking to 2001, the company faced the prospect of registering 11 drugs with regulators and launching 15 new products, three—Gleevec, Zometa, and Femara—in oncology alone. There was an acute need for a centralized coordinating body.
"Instead of having one large organization that had to understand the customers, the development processes, the special science in all those areas, it was more logical to break the company down to smaller pieces," says David Epstein, who was named CEO of the business unit when it formed in 2000.
Epstein needed a CFO, and liked Zausner immediately. He saw a dynamic self-starter with international experience and a compassion for cancer patients. He knew he was taking a chance: After all, Zausner wasn't classically groomed for the position and she had never been a CFO. But Epstein had never been a CEO either, and he gave her the job.
An early order of business was a tour of the global oncology affiliates. As Epstein, Zausner, and then-marketing head Rainer Boehm visited the various units, they expected the business to be underserved—that was why the global unit had been created. But what they found was downright neglect. Although the budget was already negotiated for the year, Zausner approved several major investments, including the doubling of several sales organizations.
A traditional risk-adverse CFO might well have noted the deficiencies and moved on. But not Zausner: "We're no longer what they call 'bean counters,'" she says. "People like me made sure that changed quickly when we started working."
At a Glance: Novartis Oncology's Cancer Compounds
"She put her career on the line," says Epstein. "It's hard to take that risk and say we're going to spend more money than we planned because we want to capture these opportunities."
But on most days, Meryl is conservative, and part of the global business unit's success stems from its focus on long-term investment. Each year, Novartis Oncology moves money from the commercial side of the business into the development portfolio, with the idea that pipeline investment will drive growth for the company over the next three years. "We've made a concerted effort to sacrifice some of the short term for the long term," says Zausner. "We debate that with our stockholders quite a bit, but the fruits of that have been fantastic in terms of the number of drugs in the pipeline."
Novartis has several key compounds moving through its oncology pipeline, including Tasigna (nilotinib), its Gleevec follow-up. (For a listing of other drugs in the pipeline, see "At a Glance: Novartis Oncology's Cancer Compounds".)
"I think Meryl has a keen understanding of how to manage the ambiguities of drug development," says Deborah Dunsire, MD, who used to lead Novartis' US oncology business, and is now the president and CEO of Millennium Pharmaceuticals, "There's a lot of art in addition to science to that."
And, of course, these financial decisions have a direct impact on patients. At a recent advocacy luncheon for cancer patients, Zausner sat next to a woman who had been part of a Gleevec clinical study five years ago. Before the study, she was confined in a hospice, bloated, unable to move, and days away from dying. After getting the drug, she had a dramatic turnaround. When Zausner protested the woman's thank-yous, she insisted: "You're part of making that happen. You're part of the decision to get the money funded to do these studies."
David Epstein, CEO of Novartis Oncology, considers Meryl Zausner one of his closest advisors-and one of the strongest leaders at the company.
If there's anything Meryl Zausner knows, it's how cancer can change a life.
Zausner met her future husband, Stuart, when she was 19 years old. After graduating from college, they conducted a long-distance relationship for close to ten years, never breaking up, but never quite getting to the point of marriage.
"This was a brilliant guy," says Zausner. "We used to call him the socialist that liked money. He had a master's in criminal justice, and he just wanted to help criminals. He'd set up halfway houses. He was a healthcare coordinator, and all the mothers of the inmates would call him."
In 1985, when Zausner was 29, they finally married. Six months later, Stuart was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
"We were so young and naïve about it," she says. "They didn't even call it cancer then. He had 'surgery.' They took out about 60 percent of it, but they couldn't get it all. He would go for radiation every day for ten weeks. You know how tiring that is? And then go to work in the afternoon."
Stuart fought against his cancer for 14 years. Zausner kept on with her career. In a period of remission in 1990, they had a son, Ethan. And then, 1997, the cancer returned stronger than ever.
While many women Zausner knew dropped out of the work force after having a baby—including all of her former accounting classmates—work continued to be important to Zausner on many levels. She had grown accustomed to throwing herself into her job when things worsened with Stuart. The cancer, and treatment, had begun to take their toll: Stuart's hair fell out, and the side effects left him bedridden. The doctors gave him six months to live.
"It was better for him that I was here working because then when I was home, I could give myself to him," says Zausner. "I never took the time off, but at least I knew I could if I needed it—and that's what you want from your employer. You worry that if you have these personal issues, that you can't really bring them forward in the workplace, that it'll inhibit your career. It doesn't take people feeling sorry for you. It just takes one or two people to say 'It's okay.'"
Stuart died in November 1999, three days before their son's ninth birthday. He was just 43.
Life wasn't easy. Meryl faced the usual problems of balancing work and family, desperately exaggerated by the fact that she and her son were now on their own. When she joined the new oncology unit in 2000, and it was time to make that first, crucial global tour, Zausner couldn't find a babysitter. She ended up leaving Ethan with an 18-year-old niece, something she still berates herself for. (See "A Letter to My Younger Self".)
A turning point came at one of Ethan's Little League baseball games. In the bleachers, she sat with two other mothers whose husbands had also recently passed away. One was saying that she had to find a husband, that she couldn't afford to live, and certainly couldn't be by herself. The other woman, too, was destitute. In one of those moments of stillness, where many of life's decisions are made, Zausner resolved to herself, "I have to have a normal life for this kid. That much I know I owe him."
In the course of learning to balance her own life, Zausner became a different kind of manager. "Many women get to senior levels by emulating the less well-liked qualities of men," says Krista McKerracher, global brand leader for Exjade (deferasirox). "But Meryl is a girl's girl, and at the same time, a very smart businesswoman focused on results. She is your girlfriend, and she is your CFO."
It's a management style that seems to be catching fire. "Meryl has taught me to be much more human," says Epstein. "I was always very focused on the business. But at the same time, I could have walked down the hall and not noticed you were there because I was so focused. Meryl has helped me to take the moment to stop, look around, to recognize that actually the more effective way to lead is through other people."
One of Zausner's goals is to empower other women. As such, many of her projects are designed to remove obstacles that get in the way. For example, seeing how eager women were to talk with one another at an HBA luncheon in 2003, she formed Executive Women Impacting (EWIN) Novartis to provide mentoring and open dialog—and help with work/life balance.
When it started, the group was grassroots with just a few members. Today, it has more than 1,000 with a charter and board and full-day programming activities. EWIN hasn't changed the world—it hasn't, for example, led to any women being named to the executive management of Novartis. But Zausner has made management listen. "It had an impact in Switzerland, where they didn't have a lot of senior women working," she says. "But Thomas Ebeling [CEO of Novartis Pharma], to his credit, said, 'We've got to fix this.'"
In 2004, Ebeling established the Diversity & Inclusion Council and picked Zausner to serve on it. In addition to groups for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and about a dozen others, the council runs a group called "Winning Styles." Intended to help employees' presentation skills, the group has instead become a safe haven where women can open up about their issues in the workforce and the industry.
Zausner was an early sponsor of the club, sitting in with small groups of women, and sharing her story. While her direct reports always knew this side of her—the one that put a $6 billion business on hold while they spoke with her about their personal issues—these groups cast her net even wider.
Zausner says she is willing to be there because so few women in the industry send the right message to the next generation. "There are some senior women who never married or don't have children. They've sacrificed and are very isolated," she says. "They tell younger women, 'You can't have a career and a family; you have to make a decision just like we did.'"
Zausner plans to start an alumni network to better understand how to retain women in the workforce, and even lure back old employees by promising they won't have to make an either/or choice. But what makes Zausner think this will work?
"When my husband was sick, all I needed was one or two people to say, 'It's okay.' I never had that. But now, that person is me."